SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2016

Researchers identify protein vulnerability in HIV virus

HIV research has expanded tremendously in the past 30 years, and the biology of the virus is almost completely understood by researchers, but the infectious process of the virus still baffles researchers to an extent.

An HIV accessory protein called Nef has been identified by researchers as a crucial focus point because without it, the virus weakens and loses much of its pathogenic ability.

 Researchers from the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE) and Trento have deciphered this important flaw in the virus by identifying the SERINC5 protein.

"When the virus replicates in a cell, it utilizes Nef in order to neutralize a specific protein whose function is to protect this cell against HIV. Our goal was therefore to identify this unknown protein to understand why some cells are more susceptible to HIV than others," Federico Santoni, bioinformatician and computational biologist and a co-author of the study at UNIGE, said.

In someone with a healthy immune system, Nef is able to neutralize SERINC5, but the study shows that if SERINC5 is found in higher-than-normal levels, Nef cannot counteract it, which reduces the virus’s ability to intensify the infection.

"SERINC5 is not the first antiretroviral factor discovered," Santoni said. "For sure, we have identified a new element, but most importantly, we deciphered a mechanism that works very differently from the others. Moreover, contrary to the antiretroviral factors previously discovered, which are activated by interferon (a protein substance produced by certain cells of the immune system in response to a pathogen), SERINC5 is expressed continuously in all cells of our immune system."

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